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The 2016 Pittsburgh Steelers Defense and the case of the missing ‘Dime’ (Part One)

Part 1 of this 3 part series looks at the Steelers’ use of the dime package heading into the 2017 season.

NFL: Pittsburgh Steelers at Cincinnati Bengals Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

This is a detective story. It is an investigation of a mystery. The Steelers dime defense disappeared in 2016, and I intend to determine the cause.

What prompted this investigation in the first place was a recent discussion I had with a BTSC member (DieselCarson) in the comment section regarding the potential use of the dime package by the Steelers in 2017. I believe the Steelers fully intend to implement the dime, as they did so in the last quarter of regular season games of 2015, as well as both playoff games. Over the course of this three part series I will examine:

  1. The Steelers use of the dime package late in the 2015 season, and during the early stages, of the 2016 season
  2. The disappearance of the dime package in 2016 and its causes
  3. The potential use of the dime package by the Steelers in 2017

As with any investigation, I will search for clues. Where do we begin? Well, before looking for something that is lost, you first must know that it was there. The Steelers dime package can only be “lost” in 2016, if it was “found” in 2015. So we will begin looking for clues in the 2015 season.

Snap counts can give us an initial idea of where to begin our search for use of the dime package. If the Steelers were to use a 6 DB package, they would have to remove a LB from the field. Lawrence Timmons played 100% of the team’s defensive snaps through the first 12 games of 2015. In their 13th game, vs the Bengals, Timmons played 46 of 54 defensive snaps. Robert Golden (a Safety, who would figure to replace Timmons in a dime package) hadn’t seen any significant number of snaps since starting in place of an injured Will Allen in games 5-8. Allen did get a handful of snaps (6, 4) in games 9 and 10, primarily filling in for a temporary injury to Mike Mitchell. In games 11 and 12, Golden played zero defensive snaps. In the Bengals game, Golden’s snap totals jumped to 21. Time to investigate.

As stated, Timmons is “missing” 8 defensive snaps. Mike Mitchell is also missing 8. That accounts for some of Golden’s defensive snaps, but there are still 13 more. I put the game film on to find them. In looking specifically for “dime package snaps,” I found only 4 instances where the Steelers used this package. The other snaps for Golden seem to have come in short yardage situations where another safety was used in place of a CB. 4 snaps for the dime package? Not exactly a sign of conviction by the Steelers coaches.

The Steelers played the Broncos next, and sure enough, Timmons played less than 100% of the defensive snaps (60/75). Golden played 22 snaps. Let’s look at the game film-

I was able to identify 18 snaps where the Steelers used their dime package. Most, of course, came in obvious passing situations. 17 of 18 came in 3rd or 4th down. 13 of 18 came with 6 or more yards needed for a 1st down. The fewest yards needed to gain during use of the dime was 4.

Now that’s conviction. 24% (18 of 75) defensive snaps came out of the dime package. Was this just a package specific to the Broncos, however? We’ll see what the Steelers do next vs the Ravens.

Snap counts for the Ravens game were 58/75 for Timmons, 28/75 for Golden, 65/75 for Mitchell. To the game film-

19 snaps in the dime package by my count. 7 of those came when the Ravens got the ball at the end of the first half with 30 seconds left. Outside of those, all of the remaining 12 occurred on 3rd down. 5 plays, however, came with 5 yards or less needed for a 1st down; twice on 3rd and 4, once on 3rd and 3. It appears as though the Steelers were expanding their use of the dime package, in terms of down and distance. Heavy use, either way, as the dime accounted for over 25% (19 of 75) defensive snaps.

The Steelers next game, the last game of the regular season vs the Browns, saw Timmons return to playing almost 100% of the snap counts. In looking at the game film it’s difficult to determine why the Steelers did not employ their dime package more.

I counted only 5 instances where the Steelers used the dime. In fact, until Will Allen got injured in the second half, Golden hadn’t seen the field. Golden played 6 snaps at SS until Allen was able to return. The Steelers then used the dime package late in the game as a “prevent” defense, while up on the Browns by a score of 28-12. The Steelers had been hit with the flu bug the week before the game, with several players missing practice time. Had Golden (who was not listed as having missed practice) come down with the flu bug prior to the game, limiting his availability, and hence, the use of the dime package? We can only speculate.

The playoffs figured to tell whether the Steelers had faith in their dime package. If they chose to implement any package in a “win or go home” setting, that would seem to affirm their belief in it.

The Steelers played the Bengals in the Wild Card round of the playoffs. The snap counts were 65/74 for Timmons, 12/75 for Golden, 72/74 for Mitchell, 72/74 for Will Allen. Without charting the snaps for each instance of the dime package, I feel it’s safe to assume the Steelers used the dime package on 9 plays. That would account for Timmons missing snaps. Golden’s additional snaps are accounted for with those 9, as well as 3 snaps filling in for Mitchell and Allen.

The Divisional playoff game in Denver was next. The snap totals were 63/74 for Timmons, 23/74 for Golden, 74/74 for Mitchell, 62/74 for Allen. The snap totals for Golden equal exactly the total of missing snaps for Timmons (11) and Allen (12). Safe to assume the Steelers used their dime package on 11 plays.

While the Steelers did not use the dime package as extensively in their 2 playoff games (12% and 15% respectively) as they had in a couple of their late season regular games, it still appeared that this was something they intended to incorporate as a part of their defense.

I did not chart down and distance for use of the dime in the playoff games. I did, however, image capture a few plays. I did so as real “proof” for any doubters out there. Also, a picture tells a greater story. So to help everyone see what I’m talking about with the Steelers dime, here is the All-22 look in the WC game vs the Bengals:

Notice Robert Golden (#21), the 3rd safety, positioned as a LB. Here is an EZ view of the Steelers pre-snap alignment:

This play occurred on the first Bengals drive of the game. It’s clear the Steelers were not using the dime package solely in prevent situations.

Now against the Broncos in the divisional round:

Here Golden is aligned as a LB or how a SS might possibly be. Again, though, this play came from the dime package, on Denver’s first drive of the game.

To recap, our clues (snap counts and charting game film) from 2015 lead to one conclusion: The Steelers incorporated the dime package as a regular part of their defense. The dime package was real. Now, would we see it in 2016?

One thing to note is the turnover among the Steelers DB’s from 2015 to 2016. Gone were Antwon Blake, Will Allen, and Brandon Boykin. The trio accounted for 83%, 73%, and 25% of defensive snaps, respectively. Collectively, they played a total of 2,009 defensive snaps. New additions to the secondary included rookie Artie Burns and Sean Davis. Justin Gilbert was acquired in a trade. Robert Golden would expand his role, beginning the season as the starting SS. These changes could impact implementation of the dime package in 2016.

The Steelers finished the 2015 season with their primary starters in the secondary as:

LCB-Antwon Blake (Ross Cockrell saw snaps on a rotation basis)

RCB-Will Gay

SCB-Brandon Boykin

SS-Will Allen

FS-Mike Mitchell

The Steelers primary starters in the secondary in Week 1 of the 2016 season vs the Redskins:

LCB-Ross Cockrell

RCB-Will Gay

SCB-Sean Davis

SS-Robert Golden

FS-Mike Mitchell

With 3 new starters, as well as a rookie on the bench, let’s look at the snap counts from the Redskins game. Lawrence Timmons played 53 of 58 defensive snaps. Now, we won’t be looking at an increase in Robert Golden’s snaps as he is already the starting safety. Artie Burns did get 9 snaps, so perhaps there is something there. We go to the game film-

I found 7 snaps where the Steelers employed their dime package. The first one occurred when the Redskins got the ball with 27 seconds left in the half. The final 5 snaps in the dime package occurred when the Redskins received the ball with 5:48 left in the game, after a Steelers TD brought the score to 31-16. The other snap occurred on a 3rd and 7 on the Redskins first drive of the 3rd quarter.

The Steelers seemed to use their dime package primarily in prevent situations. This is not terribly surprising. They had 2 rookies on the field. It would make sense to break them in slowly, under ideal situations (big lead).

It’s important to note that Robert Golden continued in his role as “dime backer.” When the Steelers employed their dime package vs the Redskins, Artie Burns played as an outside CB, Will Gay moved inside, and Sean Davis slid back to a deep safety alongside Mike Mitchell.

Alright. Baby steps in Week 1. What do the Week 2 snap counts vs the Bengals tell us?

Whoa! Timmons 46/76, Artie Burns 32/76. The game film-

I found 29 snaps where the Steelers used their dime package (Again, Golden at dime backer, Davis at SS, Burns at CB). 6 snaps occurred when the Bengals received the ball with 38 seconds left in the first half. Another 11 came after the Steelers took a 24-9 lead with 6:48 left in the 4th quarter. Of the other 12 snaps, all came on 3rd down. 2 plays, however, came on 3rd down and 3 yards needed for a first down.

The Steelers used their dime package a whopping 38% of their defensive snaps. Even when we subtract out the snaps that came in “prevent situations,” that’s still almost 16% of the time. Add in the Steelers’ willingness to use the package in 3rd and (relatively) short situations, and I think it’s safe to deduce that the Steelers indeed want to incorporate the dime package as part of their regular defense.

Let’s have a look at the Steelers’ 2016 dime package from the Bengals game:

The EZ view:

The 2016 version of the Steelers’ dime package appeared to be on its way toward figuring prominently in the success of the Steelers’ defense. What would lead to its sudden disappearance? What suspects would be involved? Will we see it again? I hope you’ll join me in part 2 as we learn of the dime’s vanishing and continue our search for clues to these questions.